During Emily’s visit, we made two trips to the Blackfriar Playhouse in Staunton, VA. (http://americanshakespearecenter.com/) Violet was with us for the first weekend, when we saw their production of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”. The second weekend, we saw Oscar Wilde’s play, “The Importance of Being Earnest”. Now this might seem to be a bit of an artistic stretch, but the more I think about the two productions, the more the plays seem to be the same image from different view points. “Hamlet” has a tragic destiny with many points of ironic humor. “Earnest” romps to its comic conclusions with many dark elusions suggesting that these romantic couples will be happy only as long as they keep up their fantasies about what is important. Merge these together to get “To be or Not to Be Earnest”.
For those who have not been to the Blackfriar Playhouse, it is the only re-creation the indoor theatre in London of the same name, which Shakespeare’s acting company used. Staunton’s version opened 10 years ago. It houses the American Shakespeare Center, which used to be the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express. We started attending their productions when we moved to the mountains eight years ago, though we had heard of their touring company performing at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.
Their agenda is to produce plays in a similar manner to how Shakespeare’s company did 400 years ago. This includes performing several plays in repertoire (thus putting on Hamlet and Earnest on at the same time, as well as “The Tempest”, “Henry V”, and Marlow’s “Tamburlaine”) using a small number of actors who play multiple roles. The sets, props, and costumes are usually limited, with emphasis put on quick scene changes and attention to the language of the script. The lighting is general house lighting. This encourages performer-audience interaction, which they will use to your embarrassment, should you do something such as neglecting to turn off your cell phone or wander in late from intermission.
For those needing a quick review of Hamlet, set yourself in a damp castle in Demark. Hamlet’s father, the king, has been killed by his brother, Claudius, who has quickly married the deceased king’s wife, Gertrude, thereby gaining the crown. Hamlet, who would be the next in line to the throne is miffed and brooding. Hamlet’s peer Laertes skips back to a more cheery environment of the University at Paris, while Laertes’ sister and Hamlet’s love-object, Ophelia, swirls around Hamlet’s whirlpool of anger and anxiety until she becomes a victim to his suicidal-murderous plot. Hamlet sets a trap, through a traveling group of players, to catch King Claudius and Queen Gertrude in their murder of his father. His trap works and everyone ends up dead on stage.
Earnest is also about class divisions and diversions. While not royalty, Earnest and his peers are of the landed gentry. They live off their inheritances and play off of each other with little purpose other than their own amusement. Earnest, who’s name is actually John, or more familiarly Jack, lives at his country estate, but has created a fictitious, ailing brother, Earnest, in London to give him a regular excuse to come into town. His friend Algernon, who lives in London, has created a fictitious country friend, Bunbury, for similar escapes. They are, or will be, in love with Gwendolen, daughter of Lady Bracknell, and Cecily, Jack’s ward in the country. Lady Bracknell speaks for the older generation and status quo, often quite hysterically. The first two acts are drawing room farce scenes of deception, self-absorption, and pursuit of each character’s fantasies. The key character in the final act is Miss Prism, the nanny who lost John, when he was an infant, and now the governess of Cecily. She reveals that each character is who he or she should be, allowing for the romantic pairs to align and for Lady Bracknell’s social criteria to be adequately fulfilled.
As I suggested earlier, one of the challenges of working in Shakespearian fashion is putting on five productions at one time on the same thrust stage. The solution is to use a minimum of cues as to the time and place of each scene. Jenny McNee’s costume selection succeeds with period dress for each production, bringing us back to the Elizabethan era for Hamlet, and the Victorian era for Earnest. Chris Johnston and Sam Koogler have selected the most essential furnishings and props, with only a few chairs for royalty in Hamlet, and London drawing room and country garden furnishings for Earnest. With these essentials in place, and the lights on, we can use our imaginations to build the rest of the set around the descriptive language of Shakespeare and Wilde.
Casting five plays with the same 13 actors presents the next challenge in this style of production. Some of this is a matter of distributing leading and supporting roles. Part of this is reverse-gender casting, utilizing women in male roles in male-heavy Hamlet, and men in female roles, well mostly for a good laugh, in Earnest. John Herrel portrays Hamlet and Lady Bracknell. His exquisite skill in timing, articulating and matching words with expressions takes familiar lines and speeches and places them within the characters. His tall stature, accentuated for hilarious affect in Lady Blacknell, provides him the power to stand up to King Hamlet’s ghost and Claudius’ usurpation of the crown. In contrast, Miriam Donald plays her petite figure as a frail and wilting flower, Ophelia, and as a chipper country girl, Cecily, who fabricates her engagement to a man named Earnest, whom she has only heard about from her guardian, Jack.
Rene Thornton, Jr. enters Hamlet, as the king’s ghost, which pushes the play toward it vengeful justice, and Earnest as Earnest, who really only pretends to be Earnest because he is really Jack, but eventually truly is earnest. From scene to scene Thornton can twist us around his terror, compassion, and frivolity. We are lucky if we can walk away from his performance only being seduced into his imagination. Benjamin Curns portrays Polonius, an advisor to Claudius, with weasley manipulations that eventually lead to his demise when Hamlet sticks him though a curtain where he hides. In Earnest, he is Jack’s city friend, Algernon, who weasles his way out to Jack’s country home and into Cecily’s romantic fantisies. Blythe Coons, as Getrude, is ambiguously villain and victim in marrying Claudius and drinking from his poisoned cup. In Earnest, as Gwendolen, she is vixen and virtue, flirting with Jack, whom she believes to be Earnest, while keeping her mother, Lady Bracknell tangled around her social rules and black book.
Allison Glezner, plays the supportive roles of Rosencrantz, a friend of Hamlet, and Miss Prism, Cecily’s governess. Her ability to be in the scene, with acute timing and presence, but to not upstage the lead characters brings the continuity that a cast needs. We look forward to seeing her step into major roles in other productions. We were impressed with the even and consistent performances of all the cast members, even though I have highlighted only a few.
Now, everyone should carry their blog with them… then they will have something sensational to read on the train…